Previously, in Part I, we ...
- celebrated record turnout in 2008 that elected the first black President, produced a 60 vote Democratic majority in the US Senate and expanded our House majority by 21 seats,So, what's ahead for Democrats?
- bemoaned the turnout in 2010, an off-presidential-year election with many fewer young and new voters, seniors who reversed themselves and voted Republican and, as for women, only 1% more of whom voted for Democrats than for Republicans, a 7 point drop from 2008,
- regretted 2010's wave election -"wave", hell, it was a tsunami!- that seriously eroded the Senate's Democratic majority, returned House leadership to Republicans, undermined President Obama's ability to get a second two years of progress and is impeding our ability to prevail in 2012 because so many seats have to be regained,
- realized that the polarization occurring in the halls of Congress and in many state capitols reflected an American electorate with a increased ratio of two conservatives to every one liberal, as Republicans turned more solidly Farther Right and a fifth of all Democrats considered themselves "conservative," and
- worse, the Great Middle - independents, moderates, undecideds - is polling as more Right-leaning, with only about 10-15 per cent of potential voters declaring themselves to be unaffiliated.
In this post, I resolve not to reduce Republicans to being mean-spirited or hostages to theologians or even corporate tools. And I am definitely not going to characterize those who might vote Republican as "low information voters", so very tempting as that is. For two reasons ...
Strategically, we have an uphill job of advocacy ahead. People cannot be bludgeoned into or out of voting, much less into voting our way. If we insult even the least of them, we may well be judged adversely who some who might otherwise be convinced to vote for Democrats - whether they be Republicans with second thoughts, or middle-of-the-roaders, or even Blue Dog-style Democrats leaning toward conservatism. It'll be too close an election to lose a soul who might come with us.
The other less selfish reason is that every one of us wants to be treated as thoughtful and reasonable, not stupid or unwise. Those we respect as individuals, maybe we can engage them in conversations that will make us all better people. For much as it hurts to admit it, we, too, can be cock-sure, overbearing, thoughtless and unwise in our own way.
The State of the Economy. The pundits' meme du jour is that the economy will be The Overriding Factor in 2012. Moreover, it can turn suddenly, just as it did in September 2008 to Barack Obama's very considerable electoral benefit. So far this year, Obama's favorability is being buoyed by small and tentative upticks in growth, downticks in unemployment and a rising stock market. Debatable though the linkage is for presidential credit or blame for the economy, James Carville was right: it's the economy that affects voter sentiment. In fact, it dominates it.
A recent New York Times interactive feature illustrates how according to Nate Silver’s projections, a stalled economy would make Obama vulnerable to all four GOP candidates and an underdog to Romney most of all, whereas GDP growth this year of, say, 2.5% would make Obama a 60% likely winner. Plug your own views into NYT's display and watch the influence Nate projects economic news will have on election results. Sure, some will argue it's a ouija board business of predictions, but Nate is awfully good at what he does.
Bottom line: the Republicans will almost certainly stress a moribund economy as Obama's biggest fault ... almost no matter how the economy is actually doing as election day nears. Can this be a winning theme for them? The downturn, along with a rapidly burgeoning deficit and unpaid-for programs and tax cuts, undeniably began in Bush's second term. House Republicans, in particular, defeated or discouraged many attempts to stimulate the economy, for example, through infrastructure spending in Obama's time. A lot depends on the ability of Obama and Democrats to demonstrate why the GOP has no high ground on these issues. This is obviously why the "Washington-is-broken" theme needs to be narrowed and laid where it belongs, at the feet of the Republicans and their leaders on both sides of Capitol Hill.
Important, too, is that while Republican candidates press a mantra of no tax increases on job creators, trickle down economic theories and lessened regulation, all these are arguments where factual substantiation is, shall we say, lacking. The absence of credible specifics and a coherent jobs program of their own should undercut the GOP's economic positions.
The Role of Ideology and Polarization. Republicans are unabashedly taking extreme positions on social issues on Federal and state levels. How this sits with voters in-the-middle - moderates, independents and undecideds - might well be the Democrats greatest source of voter converts in 2012.
How big is "The Middle?" A Gallup poll last year indicated that 40% of Americans - a startlingly large segment of the American public - considered themselves "independent." In 2008, Obama carried 60% of the moderate vote, per exit polls. Moderates were fully half of Obama's total votes; self-described Democrats were 37%. But as Will Marshall cautions in The Democratic Strategist, most independents/moderates actually lean one way or another, Republicans are gaining in this group and the current ratio seems to be about equal. In numbers, Marshall concludes, only 10 to 15% of the public are "genuinely unaffiliated voters." And more than one analyst has observed that independents tend to be more anti-incumbent, especially in midterm elections.
How polarized are Republicans within their own party? You wouldn't know from Mitt Romney flopping around in his quest for credibility with conservatives. Newt Gingrich is attacking him as a "Massachusetts moderate" and insisting on his own style of raising often odd Big Issues. Rick Santorum, confident of the support of Far Right "Values Voters," is trying to move from social to economic themes. Within the GOP in primary/caucus season, how's that working for them all?
A recent New York Times/CBS News poll shows sharp rifts in the ranks of Republicans. Fully 46% told pollsters they do not support the Tea Party, 42% say they do. As for satisfaction with the party, "Among Tea Party supporters, 7 in 10 say their party is moving in the right direction. Among non-Tea Party Republicans, just 4 in 10 agree. More than a third of non-Tea Party Republicans say the movement has too much influence in the party." The increasingly abrasive Republican primary/caucus season and the profusion of debates fueled these ruptures. Perhaps the party faithful are also reflecting their dissatisfaction with the GOP's Congressional performance or showing their perceptions of President Obama's increasing popularity. These factors may not deter the GOP's strongly faithful adherents, but may influence those only "leaning" conservative.
Whatever intra-party hydraulics are at work, attitudes such as these make even more imperative that the GOP's nominees for president and VP must be of somewhat different politics to able to appeal to middle-of-the-road voters, for every GOP Presidential aspirant as of mid-February 2012 is as Far Right as we have seen in decades. Remember what Barry Goldwater said in accepting his nomination for President in 1964: "I would remind you that extremism in the pursuit of liberty is no vice. And moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue." He later acknowledged that he impaired his campaign at the outset with that remark, yet it is quaint by today's standards of vitriolic political rhetoric.
Income, wealth and populist appeals. Much is also being made of the growing inequality in America. Surprisingly, this was not much of a wedge issue in 2008. According to the Chuck Todd/Sheldon Gawiser analysis in How Barack Obama Won, "In 2008, affluent voters [incomes over $100,000] split their votes evenly - 49% each for Obama and McCain. The biggest gains were among households with incomes over $200,000 where Obama improved [over Kerry's] 2004 performance by 17 points ... even though John McCain regularly harped on the fact that Obama was going to raise taxes on folks making over $200,000."
In 2011, OWS was raising our consciousness about inequality and President Obama made added taxes on the wealthy a very high priority. How might this play in November 2012? Nate Silver says that such populism may erode support for Obama in "wealthy Virginia", Colorado and possibly New Jersey (key states, as we shall see in Part III) but Silver also projects - assuming the economy does not stall - that concentrating on the populism of the 99% could bring voters to Democrats in 6 to 9 swing states. That game, jeopardizing as it may be to more affluent voters, might very well be worth the candle.
Age: The Extremes. Part I highlighted demographics by age. Suffice it to note here that turnout of youthful and new voters plummeted in 2010 compared to 2008. This may not be surprising for midterm elections in general, but it is a vital group for Democrats to energize this year. This is particularly true on college campuses, which have been targets for voter disenfranchisement by GOP officials and activists.
Seniors (over 65), however, did turn out to vote in 2010, going from 16% of voters in 2008 (when they favored McCain by 53% to 45%) to 21% of the voters in 2010 and went for Republicans by a huge 59% to 38% margin. In 2012, the central concern may well be proposals to alter funding for Social Security and Medicare. Current GOP proposals finesse the impact on the currently elderly for good reason. While Social Security funding is in no immediate jeopardy and classic Republican proposals to privatize SS accounts seem inauspicious given today's economy, Medicare funding is in jeopardy. Here, Obama has flirted with proposals for changes, making the GOP less obviously out on a limb.
Do Will Women Want? Now that's a key question!
Women are a majority of the voting public: 54% in 2004, 51% in 2006, 53% in 2008 and 2010. Exit polls showed women voted for Democrats in each of those elections:
- 51-48% in 2004
- 55-43% in 2006,
- 56-43% in 2008 with Sarah Palin on the ticket,
- but only 49-48% in 2010.
Is 2012 a whole new environment, what with attention to depriving women of choice and control over their own bodies, family planning and birth control funding, preventive health care services under the Affordable Care Act? Far Right legislatures and governors seem hell-bent to limit abortions, even in states like Virginia where they are legal but where medically unnecessary intravaginal probes will now be mandatory for women considering abortions. And the Komen brouhaha over funding Planned Parenthood's breast screening services. And Cong. Issa's oversight hearings with his all-male panel of pontificating clerics decrying contraceptive choice in the name of religious liberty! Extreme positions on these, which seem to be core beliefs of Far Right, are potentially divisive "wedge issues."
Yes, of course, no one, woman or man, should be taken for granted as a single issue voter. Still, campaign strategists consider family health issues as primarily the preserve of women. You can bet that Democratic strategy will be to assure that women remain mindful of these interests for themselves, their daughters and granddaughters ... and of male family members and relatives as well.
As for men, sad to say, we've been sidling over to Republicans. For example, though men went 50-47% for Democrats in 2006, we shifted to 49-48% for McCain/Palin in 2008. In 2010, the shift became startling as males voted 55% Republican to 42% Democrat, due almost entirely to white male voters (60% GOP to 38% Democratic). In particular, the white male working class vote seems to be Democrats greatest vulnerability, exploitable by Republicans particularly targeting battleground states where mediocre economic conditions stubbornly persist.
Other Broad Gauge Demographics. The turnout and expressed preferences of other demographic cohorts are important, too. As "Came in On Saturdays" blogged on February 9th: "In 2010 [compared to 2008], at least 45 million were ballot box no-shows. According to exit polling, the bulk of these were liberals, young, blacks, and Latinos, key blocs in the Democratic base. Had just 25 million of these non-voters shown up, House Democratic losses would have been in the 24-30 range, the normal mid-term amount. Nancy Pelosi, one of the most effective Speakers of all time, would still have had the gavel during the present 112th Congress ..."
Yes, of course, turnout historically drops dramatically in midterm elections. Across the board in 2010, turnout hit Democrats hard. Republicans, energized by dissatisfaction with Obama and succored with money from behind-the-curtain interests, got out the vote.
What's ahead for turnout in 2012?
Voter Suppression. States dominated by Republican legislatures and governors are sparing no efforts to impose barriers to groups that traditionally favor Democrats: new voters, college students, seniors, Hispanics, African-Americans and the poor. Prevalent but below the radar are efforts by local and county GOP activists to lobby local election officials to construe every jot and tittle of complex, arcane registration and balloting laws as narrowly as possible and to make a partisan fuss if they don't.
A recent New York Times analysis found that "voter rolls are rife with inaccuracies" due largely to outdated paper systems, unreported changes of addresses in a mobile society and mechanical problems of verification as well as substantial costs. As many as 51 million potential voters - 22% of the voting age population of America - are not registered.
Coming soon, Part III, where we speculate about the swing/breakthrough states in 2012. And nod to the electoral college.